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A Discover Cider interview with Gabe Cook, The Ciderologist

Cider is often a bit of an insular drink. Not only on an international level either – even cideries in the UK have often tended to just do their own thing, individual and apart from the other farms that surround them. The last couple of years have seen a few unifying initiatives, notably 2019’s CraftCon, sadly unable to reprise in 2020, but by and large there’s been relatively little joined-up thinking. Or, perhaps more pertinently, joined up marketing budget.

In 2020 that won’t wash. Cider – like every other drink industry – has been devastated by the collapse of on-trade sales this year. What’s more, as lockdown has started its piecemeal deconstruction, off-trade sales have slipped from the peaks of a few months back too. Across the country tanks are still full, cider remains unsold and small businesses face very real threat to their existence.

Step forward the Discover Cider initiative. Launched at the end of August, supported by an initial 34 cideries, its aim is to champion cider in all its forms and sizes, from the industrial behemoths to the smallest of garden shed producers. It’s project-managed by Gabe Cook, ‘The Ciderologist’, who I’ve wanted to interview on Malt for a long while now, but who, as cider’s busiest man has always proven elusive. So I’m very grateful that he took the time to talk to me (in astonishing depth) about this new campaign. Our conversation is below, lightly edited for clarity.

Malt: Can you give us a bit of background in who you are and how you got into cider?
Gabe: So my name is Gabe Cook, my working title is “The Ciderologist”, which is obviously a completely made up word, but has for a long time in my mind and for the last three years as my full-time job, encapsulated a championing and advocacy of cider – The Ciderologist. I am the world’s only full-time, independent cider advocate in its greatest reach and meaning and extreme. There are obviously plenty of people who are very knowledgeable on cider in association with other drinks, there are people who are very knowledgeable who work for cidermakers and there are very knowledgeable people who have an expertise in the provision of some technical cider training. But in terms of as an all-round advocate whose sole focus is on cider, I believe I’m the only person who’s doing it. And we’ll come onto how that’s good and bad I suppose as we go through.

For me, the reason why I’m working with cider is entirely based on where I am from. I’m amazingly fortunate to have grown up in a picturesque little village called Dymock, which I ramble on about frequently. It sits very crucially a mile inside the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border on the Gloucestershire side, so I am a proud Gloucester boy, but that little bit of the county in North West Gloucestershire it’s like a little peninsula that juts out into the Herefordshire sea. So from a landscape and a culture point of view it is Herefordian in nature, which is talking about geo-political boundaries I suppose. And, you know, it is a quintessential little English village: church, pub, village hall. When I was a little boy it had a baker’s and a butcher’s and a little village shop. It’s got a garage and all this kind of stuff, and fields all around. Just really bucolic, really fortunate. And my granny was a really influential person in my life. I’m the youngest of three and my mum and dad were working when I was little and so my gran would pick me up from school. She lived on the edge of the village; this is where my mum grew up, so I’ve got a few generations based in this village. And we would go on adventures basically. We would go for drives, we would go for walks. And she really taught me about landscape and natural history and flowers and birds and just got me sort of a little rooted to the ground. Not necessarily as a farmer – I’ve never been a farmer – but building a link to the land.

And I think part of that came from cider. I started to become aware that there was this alcoholic beverage called cider and that actually it was made quite locally – there was quite a big cidery in the village next door, Much Marcle, which is Weston’s, now the fifth biggest producer in the UK – and that not so far away, you know, 13 and a half miles away in Hereford was the world’s largest cider making facility at Bulmer’s, still at this point an independent family company until 2003. And I enjoyed drinking it when I was younger. It was my sort of go-to beverage of choice. And I never really … I never OD’d on it in the way that so many people seem to as the first booze, as the cheap booze often – or it certainly was back then – as the accessible kind of booze. I just sort of sipped it and enjoyed it and just went on a journey of “oh I quite like this.” And, looking back, the ciders that I really enjoyed when I was, dare I say, 18 or maybe just a shade younger, were the more tannic sort of mainstream ciders. I liked Blackthorn and I loved Scrumpy Jack which, you know, I think they’re pretty good ciders. They’ve got a lot of boldness and a lot of tannin in them. Maybe not Blackthorn so much these days. And so in retrospect that sort of set my palate back then, or that’s what I liked. And so I came to drinking the Weston’s Ciders which, I think, 20 years ago, were making some of the best ciders in the country. Their Weston’s Organic Vintage, which was a 500ml bottle, green label, was – and still is in my mind – one of the best ciders there’s ever been. It was just amazing, insane.

And so I loved these ciders, loved the fact that you could go and visit, loved the fact that it was in the village next door and it was all around me and so I drank a bit of that and then went on a metaphorical – and physical – adventure, an idealogical adventure to go and see what was next, you know? What else was out there? And it was apparent that there were these smaller cider farms in Herefordshire, in Gloucestershire, in Somerset, in Devon. And especially Herefordshire which since sort of the late ‘90s has had this Herefordshire cider route, which I think was a leaflet – now there’s a website associated with it too. It listed where these cidermakers were and, bugger me, there was a cidermaker at Ross on Wye, a whole eight and a half miles away from Dymock.

So one day my brother and I went on an adventure, and we drove down there – well, he drove down there – and, you know, you go on the A49 then you suddenly turn off down this little lane, I’m navigating, and suddenly it’s like you’ve gone into Middle Earth. We’ve gone to Hobbiton, we’re expecting Frodo and co to be running across in front of us, it’s like “where the bloody hell are we?” Amazing lane with grass down the middle, you know, and there’s this little sign that says “Cider, B&B, Cream Teas”. And so we go up the drive and the house that seems to be the place and there’s like a sign on the cellar door that says “pull string for cider”. And so we pulled the string, didn’t know what was going to happen next, the bell jingled and a gentleman called Mike Johnson emerged, very jovial and friendly and invited my brother and myself into the cellar, and we’re met with this giant flagstoned cellar underneath the farmhouse with these barrels lined up on either side. And Alex and I – my brother – were like “ooh, this is cool”. And Mike bent down, grabbed a plastic glass, opened up the tap and filled up maybe two thirds of this half pint glass with a lightly-hazy, dark amber liquid and said “there you go, try that. That’s dry cider”. And I remember the taste of it so vividly – it was intense, it was like nothing I’d ever tasted before. It was still, but it kind of had a briskness to it, it was chewy. Probably had Ashton Bitter in it, I suspect. And it was “wow, this is amazing, the cider’s amazing, Mike is amazing – he’s so friendly. The cellar is an amazing place.” And he quickly informed me that there was a bit of a social scene and if you wanted to come and volunteer pick or anything, just so welcoming.

So Broome Farm, Ross on Wye, was my entry really into getting lost down the rabbit hole of cider. And I did then do some volunteer picking in the autumn of 2005 and just loved it. Magical. Magical. I remember going apple picking on my birthday – I could think of nothing else better to do. And then I did my round the world travels; spent seven or eight months doing a lovely first backpacking global trip as a fresh-faced youth. And I came back from the trip with no idea what I was going to do – I had graduated, I’d worked a little bit, I thought I wanted to get into conservation possibly, but I didn’t know what or how. And Mike said “oh do you need some work? I need somebody to help me with the harvest this autumn”. So I obviously jumped at the opportunity. And the accommodation onsite was billed as “a timbered chalet amid myriad apple trees”. It was in fact a shed in the garden (amongst myriad trees). And I was as happy as a pig in shit. It was amazing! Little shed, and to be on site and work alongside this very friendly chap and the other people – the characters who worked there. Phil, who was Mike’s business partner at the time, dreadlock John was working there. Iron age Phil … all these characters, all really knowledgeable, all really friendly, all really passionate.

And so I spent basically nine very happy months making cider, bottling cider, drinking cider, talking about cider and just learning so much about the process of making. But so much more than that – the understanding its role in the cultural landscape, the heritage, the stories, trees, orchards, varieties. And yeah just falling in love with what cider is – and of course associated with that very strongly, being from Dymock, perry as well. And that having a particularly strong story and lure. The very first drink I ever made was 25 litres of Thorn perry, the pears from the last remaining perry tree on my granny’s farm at Dymock. Big brute of a tree that’s still there – the farm’s not actually in the family any more. And do you know what, it was actually probably the best drink I’ve ever made, which was obviously down to chance! And I love Thorn – I love my ciders to be bold and earthy and tannic and my perries to be lean and brisk and effervescent. Great drink. And, ah, it just … my eyes suddenly opened and I could see these trees, these orchards – it’s amazing. You have like a filter sort of taken off I suppose you could say and I could just see the impact of these trees on the landscape, it’s just amazing. I loved it – I absolutely loved it.

So I just knew that I wanted to “do” cider – I could feel like a knot in my stomach because I wanted to dive into it so much. I had no idea what that actually sort of meant in terms of career, but I was really fortunate – I had applied to do a Master’s programme in Sustainable Development Advocacy. It was a funny one – it was a practical Master’s programme rather than a purely theoretical one; there were a lot of work placements associated with trying to find sustainable solutions to real world problems and so we did placements in industry and business, in charities, in communities. And it just so happened there was the opportunity to do a carbon footprinting project for the National Association of Cidermakers and so I did that and got to meet all the big cidermakers and when I finished my Master’s I was offered a job by Weston’s to be a cider maker. Which I hadn’t necessarily thought was the next step, but you don’t turn down an opportunity like that! So went from making cider in 220 litre barrels to 200,000 litre stainless steel tanks. But I brought the same sort of attitude with me and the same sort of thought process, it’s just that the logistics are a bit different. And so I had two very happy years – fascinating years, brilliant years – working at Weston’s. The privilege of working with those old oak vats is something that I’ll always hold dear. But I realised I was better at – and had a real passion to – advocate cider. Cidermaking is hard work and there is a lot of repetitive nature in there. There is a romance associated with it, and the creativity is brilliant, but as anybody who has been involved with cider or wine or brewing will know, the majority of it is moving stuff and cleaning stuff. And that is a fact. And so I wanted to talk, and so Helen, the boss of Weston’s, asked around the cider industry “is there anyone who’s got a job for Gabe?” This is how it works with cider. And Bulmer’s – or Heineken at this point – answered the call and said they actually had a role based in Hereford as a Cider Communications Manager, so acting as the link between the local community and the company which for so long had been family-owned and then since 2003 wasn’t, and to ensure that there was a good strong link between cider operations and the community. So that’s the role that I did for three years, supporting the Bulmer’s or the Heineken brand teams, and did some work on behalf of the National Association of Cidermakers too, which at that point had no full-time secretariat. The highlight was presenting a bottle of cider to Her Majesty the Queen in 2012, on her Diamond Jubilee tour, and there are a couple of photos knocking around, and for anybody who’s had the opportunity to see it I must have offended Her Majesty quite a lot because she’s got a face like thunder! I’m trying my best to sort of be all polite and effusive in the 17 seconds I got with her, and I got short shrift I think.

So I did that, but then on my travels previously – pre-Ross on Wye – I’d travelled to New Zealand and loved it, so it was always an ambition to go to New Zealand and the time and opportunity was right and so I moved to New Zealand and made cider for the amazing Peckham’s cider. Best cidermakers in New Zealand I would say, one of the best cidermakers in the world. I love their innovation and creativity. So I went back to making cider on a small scale. I wasn’t necessarily the best at it – my skill set really, really does lie in more advocacy, my working in the cidery had some skill set, but I needed to be part of the team, I think. That’s probably where I was best set. So I then went to work for a winery, which was brilliant – Waimea Estates. This is all in the Nelson region, top of the south island, beautiful area. And it was fascinating to work with a winery, to understand the similarities and differences and to learn about the importance of yeasts, to learn about phenolics, to learn about autolysis and acids, use of barrels and all sorts. Just such a huge crossover. It also really highlighted that cider and wine are really not the same – but gosh there are so many similarities in terms of how you can approach it. And it really also opened my eyes, my time in New Zealand, to ciders that weren’t only made from high-tannin, low-acid apples. I made cider with dessert fruit, I made cider whereby I added other things to it – locally-grown hops – it’s the hop-growing area, the Motueka Valley – blackcurrants, locally-grown Feijoas and all sorts. And I learned that you can make really, really interesting, brilliant and tasty ciders – well-made cider with good other ingredients added to it. They’re not easy to make, I would hasten to add – you’ve got to find that balance and that integration, it’s really not an easy thing at all.

So I did that, moved to Wellington for a bit for a change of scene, didn’t go into the big city, was working for Flight Centre, was on the bus one day to Flight Centre wondering why I was on the bus to Flight Centre when I probably should be doing the thing which I’m most passionate about which is talking about cider. So I moved back to the UK in the summer or spring of 2016. I spent a year working for the National Association of Cidermakers as their communications officer, and I built their website which they still have today and put in a set of programmes which tried to build links between the industry body and all of the cider industry and community. I think I did a good job. But I was starting to do The Ciderologist on the side, and amazingly the interest in it and my feeling of bravery to have a go for it happened much quicker than I thought so on the 16th of June 2017 I became The Ciderologist full time and that’s what I’ve been doing since.

So it’s the journey – I’m still learning what cider is and what it can do – but just writing, talking, teaching, tasting, training, advocacy, judging, running competitions, just trying to give cider a tiny little bit of what beer, wine and spirits have in great abundance, which are platforms for people to talk with knowledge and passion about cider. Cider in the UK alone, which is the world’s biggest cider making country and biggest cider market has a value of £3.1 billion and yet I do seem to be the only person who is having a crack at being a full time independent person associated with it. With that comes some benefit because I’ve got a pretty good nice, but I’m a bit lonely out here and I’m desperate for people to come and join me for the ride. And definitely in these last 12 months things are very much starting to change, and Adam you’re very much part of that, and I think these are very exciting times for cider.

Malt: What is Discover Cider and what’s your role within it?
Gabe: So a little earlier in the summer things were particularly challenging – sort of lockdown-esque or coming out. Cidermakers are quite a convivial and community-based bunch and there’s chats and there’s talks, and there was a desire for there to be some external consumer-public-media-trade facing platform to champion and advocate cider. The National Association of Cidermakers, the UK cider industry body is not a marketing organisation, they’re primarily working to represent the cider industry in terms of government or legislation – things like that. They don’t have the time or budget or the resources to be a marketing organisation. And yes the individual cidermakers, especially as you get larger, have the budgets to do kind of campaigns.

But there was English Wine Week and obviously myriad beer events and activities, but there was nothing cohesive for cider. And so there was a suggestion and a couple of cidermakers went “yeah, let’s do something”. And I think it was Sam Mount from Kentish Pip who said “let’s call it Discover Cider”. And so all the website and the domain name and all the handles and everything were captured and it was like “right, let’s try and build something”. And so I was asked to be, I suppose, first it was Project Manager and now I suppose it’s Campaign Manager to try and push through and create. And what we’re talking about is a three-month-long campaign whereby we have a centralised platform and social media channels that just provide platforms to showcase the positivity of cider – the positive side of cider, and the fact that cider is this amazing drink, it’s this amazing community, it’s this amazing culture and just try and be vocal about it and come together as an industry and be greater than the sum of our parts.

The campaign is open to any cidermakers, so we have the world’s largest cidermaker involved and we have a handful that are below 7000 litres and everything in between. As it stands today we’ve got 34 supporters on board and I certainly hope that within the next couple of weeks we’ll have considerably more as well. And yeah, it is going to be a three-month-long-campaign, so rather than being just a short burst of activities, it’s not like an English Cider Week or a British Cider week – this is going to be a drip feed. So we’re starting now at the tail end of summer, but of course we’re going to be going into the harvest period – though with harvest things are already starting a little bit early this year. So there are going to be online events, there are obviously hopefully going to be some in-person events, we’ve got an events page, we have a map that showcases where our cider supporters are, we’re building up a directory of great places to purchase cider too.

And yeah, it’s this one great campaign just to showcase the awesomeness. We’ve got three sort of central themes, one is around diversity; we believe there’s a cider for everybody, whether that be style, occasion, food, where the cider is made, the types of people that make cider as well – there is a great diversity of that as well. And then we’ve got the fact that cider is a real community; there are people right at the heart of it, whether it be people bringing community orchards together, cider clubs, volunteering opportunities but also just the friendly camaraderie that exists. Cider is quite a welcoming industry I would say, in the main. Maybe not some of the cliqueyness of other drinks; cider tends to have a bit more of an open-door policy. And then there’s the other one around cider’s sustainable green credentials, you know, based around firstly the orchards – wonderful biodiverse environments – and also because it’s no-till because this is a crop which has been rooted into the ground for a long time. Because of the photosynthesis we’re carbon-storing, carbon sequestration as well. The raw materials are apples, the vast majority of apples are grown in the UK, often by the cidermakers themselves. Cidermaking, certainly compared to brewing, is a considerably less energy-intensive process, there is no need for large amounts of heat in the process; cider is a more ambient-temperature fermentation and there’s no need for augmentation of sort of sugars and things like that. So there’s a lot of positivity around it, we’re just, via multiple voices and via multiple avenues just getting cider out there and sharing the love.

Malt: What makes this the time to discover cider?
Gabe: Well for several reasons. Very personally, because of covid-19. Cider is like any other industry and also we’re very closely associated with the hospitality industry as well, whereby there’s been a devastation. I mean the whole country – the whole world – is being devasted, I’m not saying that drinks or hospitality are any different. But it has been heavily impacted. And, you know, the idea of there being some sort of voice or campaign is maybe something that has been mooted before, but gosh it was really brought into focus by covid-19, and if ever cider needed a shot in the arm it was now. So it was the context of that.

It was also the fact that I really believe that we are at a point whereby there is a range of cidermakers in the UK making a quality and a diversity of product that present themselves and speak to a range of consumers, a greatness in terms of the overarching offering for any kind of consumer exists now which didn’t exist – certainly didn’t exist ten years ago – don’t think it even really existed five years ago. We’re just at such a unique time whereby cider is ready to go through a process of being rediscovered all over again by some people or discovered for the first time possibly. Maybe there are preconceptions, maybe there’s just a complete lack of understanding of what cider is or what cider can be. And, you know, we’ve got curious consumers out there. We’ve got people exploring drinks through specialist online and now on-the-high-street sort of retailers. There’s been great exploration of different kind of drinks. I was privy to a piece of data that showed that come the end of May 2020, year-on-year versus the same time in 2019, 1.1 million consumers had purchased cider in a retail environment that hadn’t purchased cider in at least the last two years. So there is an interest; there’s an interest and an opportunity, and there is the will and the wish of cidermakers to come together and do something. So in that respect it’s actually kind of easy; it just seems that now is the right time, so everyone’s gone “well alright, let’s go and do this”. And so it’s happened – it’s as simple as that really.

Malt: With people less able – or unsure about – going out and visit cideries or bars at the moment, tell us about some of the events that are taking place and where people can safely get involved.
Gabe: So our central hub is www.discovercider.com. We have an events page on there. We haven’t got a huge number of events up there as yet, but just keep an eye on it because it’s going to build and build and build over the course of the next two weeks and certainly once we get into the latter half of September there are going to be so many talks and tastings and tours of cideries. And then physical events as well associated with the harvest and all those events taking place in a physical location will be abiding by social distance guidelines of course. So all the information is available on the website, also the wonderful Cider George is manning the social media channels and he will be advocating and showcasing these pertinent events via social media channels. We’re on Facebook at Discover Cider, we’re on Instagram at Discover Cider and we’re on twitter at Discover Cider too. And each platform’s going to have a slightly different sort of nuance and level of activity.

Our Instagram and Facebook is where we will have competitions; we’ve just had our first competition and amazingly we had 242 people enter into that competition in the space of five days, which is just amazing that level of engagement. For the love of a free case of cider – mind you it adds quite a strong lure, I suppose! Over on twitter this is where we have more of our conversational activity, talking about times and occasions for cider, great conversation and debate. I’ll be hosting some conversations with some of our supporters – some of the cidermakers within the campaign, and they’ll be doing some of their own activities too. So yeah we’ve got a few things in the pipeline – just keep an eye on the webpage, there’s so much to come over the next three months.

Malt: How are you hoping to break out of the cider bubble and reach a wider audience with this? (Other than an interview on a whisky site, obviously…)
Gabe: I think first of all by reaching directly to consumers, which I don’t think that all cidermakers or all of the industry does. To people who might be existing cider drinkers who want to explore more, or people who are just a bit uncertain about cider. Through having a bright and effective social media strategy we’re trying to reach people who are drinks-interested and just to provide them with an accessible and a friendly way to become engaged with cider. So directly with consumer is one angle.

Also to reach out to and to work with media that are not solely associated with cider. Yes we’re obviously going to be reaching out and appealing to drinks writers and hopefully some quite prominent drinks writers too whereby cider usually gets a ubiquitous mention once a year – you know, “six ciders for summer”, because that’s obviously the only time you ever drink cider. Well how about we talk about cider with food? Or how about ciders for winter time? Or how about ciders instead of sparkling wine? Or how about cider that you drink if you’re an aromatic white wine drinker? Or something like that, whatever it may be.

We’re also trying to reach even beyond drinks and try and get into food and into lifestyle as well and just provide cider as something that is known, that is accessible and that is enjoyable. And a bit more of a challenge, but we would also like to showcase to the trade – obviously on-trade is having a terrible time at the moment – and we want to showcase to them that cider can provide something a bit fun or a bit different if the consumers that are coming in … it could even fall one of two ways; they could just want to go for known favourites, which I understand, maybe they’ll be a bit more explorative, and cider can provide that option. In retail, to capitalise upon this new found interest in cider, which is there – anecdotally and in the numbers – by saying “hey, we’ve seen that there’s a bit of an interest in cider; check out our campaign, check out who our supporters are, have a look at some of the ways that you can present cider to people; if you’re in retail and you want to know more you can get in contact with us, we can help you” and yeah, just sort of engage with this nascent sort of cider movement that is just bringing back a bit of excitement and a bit of fervour to cider.

Malt: A standout feature of the initiative is that you’ve involved cideries of all sizes, from the very small, to makers who could be described as industrial. What was the importance of doing that?
Gabe: Well because cider’s like any other drinks category, whereby there are larger makers who make a considerably greater volume of cider – of a consistent drink, easily available, widely available, and there are those that make niche, seasonal, maybe even experimental. And we’re talking about different consumers, different bits of the trade. And, in my opinion, both spectrums of the industry need each other. The smaller end of cider doesn’t always get the opportunity to have huge amounts of visibility and it’s just about getting people to choose cider. Cider accounts for less than 10% of all the booze consumed in the UK. Cider does a good job of shouting quite loudly, or at least being on the public consciousness that it exists. But translating that into regular purchase hasn’t really happened. Less than 10% of all the booze in the UK, less than 50% of people in the UK ever consume cider. That’s prior to this year so maybe that number will have slightly eaked over 50%.

So this is just about trying to get people to drink cider. Any cider. I would be happy if we could get somebody who doesn’t drink any cider at all, if they started drinking some cider as part of their repertoire, that’s a win for me. Because once they go into cider they’re off on their journey. Maybe they’ll stay with a lovely, easy, crisp 4.5% drinking pint, maybe they will explore further down the rabbit hole and go and try some of the other ciders as well. And let’s be fair – cider needs to have this broad visibility; the most amazing and catalytic time for the awareness of cider happened back in 2006 when Magners – who was already in the marketplace – came out with this huge, multi-million pound cider advertising campaign, TV, on the billboards. And it was bright and it was fresh and – yes – it was over ice, whether you like that or not it doesn’t matter. But it presented cider as something attractive and as appealing and it got millions of people drinking cider. The volume of cider that was being consumed grew 50% in three years between 2006 and 2009, and yes a lot of that volume went onto Magner’s brand and to Strongbow and to Bulmer’s, but the likes of Weston’s and Thatchers, they grew immeasurably too and became the peak competitive cidermakers that they are today. Those cidermakers that were quite small grew and have become good, solid regional businesses – the Sheppey’s of this world etc. And then the smaller cidermakers; a number of them were sub-7000 litre or maybe 30- or 40000 litre and they’ve grown into viable small enterprises – the Ross on Wyes of this world, the Tom Oliver’s, the Hogan’s, the Dunkerton’s etc.

I’m a firm believer that a rising tide floats all boats. If we can get all cidermakers involved; cidermakers both big and small shouting cohesively, we can become greater than the sum of our parts, reach out into other areas and give the consumer the opportunity to decide what kind of cider they want to drink. It might be a pint of something nice and easy, it might be something bold and tannic and – dare I say – even with some Foxwhelp in possibly Adam. And really complex – maybe it’ll be a perry, maybe something more acid-driven if it’s an Eastern Counties that’s sort of light an elegant. It might even be something that’s got some fruit in, or some elderflower, or some hops. As long as the consumer is aware that this breadth and this spectrum of different styles exists then I think the campaign will be a success.

Malt: Discover Cider has three key tenets, I understand. Tell us a little bit about those? How did you arrive at them and how are they going to be upheld and championed by the initiative?
Gabe: I suppose that I devised them, but there is a steering committee of the campaign and I presented the idea. My background, having worked in communications for Heineken and as the comms officer for the UK cider industry previously, I really wanted this campaign to be a professional campaign. Not to be rabble-rousing, not to be anything other than just providing some simplicity to the messages being put out so that, again, everybody can amplify them, because when you amplify the same messages they start to be seen and they start to be heard.

And the first one was a no-brainer because it’s what I’ve been talking about forever in every single role that I’ve ever done, whether I’ve been championing or talking about cider it’s been talking about the diversity of different styles that are out there. There is a cider for everyone – different alcohol content, different flavour profile, more acid-driven, more tannic-driven, different kind of food matches. The different parts of the country that these ciders are made in, whether it be the heartland of the South West or Three Counties or Kent and Suffolk and Sussex or into newer territory like the East Midlands – gosh there are so many amazing producers in the East Midlands, in Yorkshire, up in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, South Wales, North Wales. Getting people aware that there are all these different types and that they do have nuance in terms of cultural style or variety – the key thing, as you know – putting the apple or the pear at the fore of things as well, being the primary determinant of what the overarching flavour profile of that cider is. To introduce the concept of, you know, cider and food matching, and to put a spotlight on the cidermakers as well. Most of them are rural – some are in fact urban. Most of our cidermakers are men – not all of them, we do have some women within the cider industry. As an industry we are still exceedingly white, but not exclusively. And so it’s just really to open the door to this diversity in its greatest form that exists within cider. So that was just a bit of a no-brainer.

And then in terms of community and people, again it just seemed so obvious because it’s what I love about cider so much. The cider clubs – I took my girlfriend to one on our second date, to Ross on Wye’s cider club. And we’re in the room there and we’ve got all these characters, and we’re just going through. And, you know, they’re not performing a role intentionally – it’s just who they are. But it was just so warm and so friendly, just so much fun that she’s decided to stick around with me since, much to my appreciation. And it is such an embracing community; to see cidermakers working together for the good of the category. Jackie Denman from the Big Apple Association in Herefordshire, she coined a phrase: “co-optition”, whereby these are cidermakers, they’re reaching out ostensibly for the same consumers, but they’re doing it together, because they recognise that, yes, there are these consumers who are interested in cider but again there’s all these consumers who aren’t drinking cider. And they’re working collaboratively for the benefit of cider. And then in terms of community orchards and how they bring communities together, often in urban areas, in deprived areas, in areas where there isn’t much opportunity, where there’s often a lot of social exclusion, you know, these places provide opportunity for health and welfare and exercise. And then in terms of the makers we’ve got all these characters, you know, the ex-hotelier who’s turned cidermaker, we’ve got the Proclaimers tour-manager turned cidermaker, we’ve got all these different people with various different backgrounds and upbringings, and it’s just something really wonderful to celebrate.

And then in terms of Cider’s sustainable credentials well, again, it’s just so obvious to me because of these orchards. Our raw material comes from apples and the vast majority of these apples that are used by British cidermakers are grown here in the UK, are grown in Britain. And, as I say, often by the cidermakers themselves. And traditional orchards have priority status under UK biodiversity action plan. And even with the modern orchards, the bush orchards, which some people might compare to a monoculture of wheat or seed rape – well I would ask them to go and stand in a bush orchard and go and stand in one of those monocultures and you will notice the difference in terms of the invertebrates, in terms of the birds, in terms of the mammals in there. They are quite different environments. And they’re just really, really, magical places, and it’s something that needs to be championed and celebrated because it’s so integral to the identity and the heart and the culture of so many parts of so many UK cidermakers.

Malt: Going back to “Community”, some industrial and some small scale cideries aren’t always the easiest of bedfellows. What can – or should – be done to work together more and build bridges?
Gabe: Well I think that’s precisely what this campaign is doing. By giving a platform where everybody is welcome and everybody can participate, everybody gets on and chips in. And, you know, there is a supporter fee to be part of this campaign to support it; to facilitate the actions, but also they get their kickback by being presented and advocated and talked about and we’ve got a lovely cider map and listings for all these cidermakers. And that supporter fee is worked out pro-rata by volume, so the biggest pays more and the smallest pays less, so it’s quite an egalitarian system.

So for any cidermaker that is on board with “I want to do something that champions cider”, this is the platform for that. If there are individuals of cidermakers that don’t have that attitude or ethos, that’s absolutely fine. They’re ploughing their own furrow and they’re getting on with their own thing, and that’s fine. And that’s no different from any other drinks industry, there are plenty of wineries and breweries that have their own ideals and they don’t necessarily want to participate in broader campaigns, so it’s up to cidermakers to have their own agenda of what they want to do. The joy of Discover Cider is that it is a welcoming campaign. Anybody, like I say, from biggest to smallest is welcome to join. And hopefully just in the action of this breadth of cidermakers signing up to something together – uniquely, this has never happened before – just in terms of everybody being willing to be like “yep, I can get on board with that”, if there are any perceived tensions or challenges then this is just a space and a place where people can get on with it and get on with working together.

Malt: And as regards “Cider is Green”, every year we read these articles saying thousands and thousands of tonnes of apples don’t get harvested and go to waste. Given what’s happened in the world this year, that problem’s likely to be bigger than ever. What could be done collectively and by individual people to improve this situation?
Gabe: That’s a really tough one. In any year, let’s say, pre-this year, yes there are lots of apple trees, there are huge numbers of apple trees out there where the fruit goes to waste. The vast majority of that are, let’s say, ornamental apples – they’re in gardens or parks or other sort of marginal spaces, and there has been a rise and a prevalence of community orchards, community pressing days and the idea of putting some value into that fruit by pulling something together. You’ve got cidermakers who are starting to use this fruit, who are saying “hey, we value this fruit, we will take that fruit”. I’m thinking of like the Garden Cider down in Surrey and Hawkes as well with their apple donor programme – they’ll take in this unwanted fruit. And there have been huge numbers of cidermakers who have been doing that for years and years and years. So you’ve got that kind of element.

Gosh, this year especially – for cidermakers this is a unique year – there are a lot of cidermakers who haven’t sold all of the cider that they made last year. The vast majority of cidermakers by number make their cider as a vintage product, so they harvest the fruit in the autumn, they squeeze it, they extract the juice, they ferment, they mature and they utilise that cider throughout the year – they draw down and they package their cider. Well obviously not as much cider has been sold this year so their tanks are full, they just don’t have the tank space to make more cider. So as things stand I don’t know what cidermakers can easily do on that.

One thing that a great number of cidermakers are supportive of and indeed through to the National Association of Cidermakers is supportive of is the idea of there being a progressive cider duty system as it stands. Where when you’re making up to and including 7000 litres and not a litre more, you don’t pay any duty at all. And this has been a highly advantageous break within the UK taxation system that has facilitated the start-up of many cidermakers and allows lots of community projects, traditional orchards to be supported, small farm diversification projects etc. But as it stands, as soon as you make 7001 litres you pay a full rate of duty on all 7001 litres, so at that point there is no offer of help for cidermakers to viably and sustainably grow their business from a tiny start-up into a viable independent, commercial enterprise.

So the idea and the concept of there being a reduced rate of duty as cidermakers enter into the above 7000-litre cidermaking is something that, as I say, a lot of cidermakers are in favour of. And that would enable some of these smaller cidermakers to grow their volume, which would be able to utilise excess fruit that may be out there within the orchards, within these apple growing areas. A lot of cidermakers are at the scale that they are because they’re sort of constrained by the way that the duty system works in terms of having to pay full whack, and they just can’t quite get the economies of scale to work for them. So to have a helping hand and some sort of slight reduction of duty will enable them to re-invest in equipment, to have more tank space, to be able to purchase more apples, maybe to be able to employ somebody to be able to get out on the street and try to sell their cider as well, into the on-trade and into retail. And I think that’s quite a crucial way that we’re going to hopefully see more apples being utilised.

Malt: I guess a significant challenge that cider faces is in improving its perceived image. How will Discover Cider go about tackling that?
Gabe: Well I mean on the one hand it’d be fair to say that for many, many consumers there isn’t an image problem because pre-covid millions of pints of cider are sold all the time. 786 million litres-worth of cider was sold in 2019, so for a lot of people there isn’t necessarily an image problem. But for a lot of people it’d be fair to say that there is. The stats of cider being less than 10% of total volume and the penetration into households is still less than 50%.

For some people, there is an impression in their minds about what cider is. And that might be that maybe it’s a cider that they’ve tasted that they didn’t like the level of acidity in there, or they didn’t like the tannin in there possibly. They of course didn’t know what those things were – one of the challenges with cider is there isn’t a particularly developed lexicon, language, stylisation associated with the category. With beer and with wine and with spirits there is a very longstanding and more highly-developed new set of terms and language associated with those drinks that the drinks trade understands and therefore the consumer understands, that is associated with a particular flavour, taste experience and an overarching experience and sensation. So most consumers will understand the difference. You’ve got beer – everyone knows what beer is and most people would know a lager and maybe a stout, and if you’re a little bit more into it maybe you’d know what an IPA was, or a Saison, or a Berlinerweisse or a kettle sour or whatever. People understand that you have a term and that it is associated with something overarching in terms of style or flavour and they get to be discerning and to choose what they want. Same with wine with the varietals and with the regions. Cider still generally is known as “cider” and that’s about it. Or maybe dry cider or sweet cider or a fruit-flavoured cider or traditional or scrumpy etc. Which are all perfectly fine labels but they don’t really tell you a great deal about what the consumer is going to expect beyond, if it’s dry then it’s dry, whatever that means, or sweet.

I’m a big advocate of trying to introduce better language into the marketplace to give the trade and the consumer a little bit more guidance and understanding that there is this differentiation of different types of cider – cider isn’t just one thing, it is a fantastic range. It might be that somebody tried cider once and they don’t like tannin, they don’t like those sort of West Country-style ciders, the boldness or astringency or bitterness or those volatile phenolics, but actually they are a white wine drinker and they like things like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc and they like things that are a bit more light and crisp. Or maybe they would like a cider that’s a bit more acid-driven, but they’ve never had the opportunity to try one because they tried a cider once, it was tannic, they didn’t like it, they go “well obviously I don’t like cider because that and the fruit-flavoured cider, that’s all that cider is”. I wouldn’t say it’s an “education” piece, because that’s almost a bit condescending, it’s just about trying to provide a platform to say “hey, cider is that thing that you think it is, but it’s also this and this and this and this and this. And to give them the opportunity to decide whether they like any ciders at all. They may or may not, or actually they may go “gosh, I really like that cider”. And so I think it’s just about trying to provide real open-access resources to being aware that there is this amazing range and that, yeah, cider isn’t this one thing, it can be a range of completely different things.

Malt: So is that what you see as the most important areas when it comes to “education” or public rediscovery of cider? Or do you think there’s something even more important to get through? What’s the most important take-home for the consumer?
Gabe: Yeah, I think it is, and I think it’s emblematic of the fact that we do have, for the first time, the totality of UK cider industry, in terms of openness and in terms of we do have cidermakers from the biggest to sub-7000 litre. In one place, in one fell swoop to have the opportunity to be aware that there is cider made on a very large scale that is consistent, that is clean, that is easily accessible, all the way down to the most obscure, complex, maybe even kind of challenging kind of cider. That they all exist, that they’re all called cider and that they all have their own merit. And just to allow people to explore it without prejudice or without saying that one is better than another.

There are plenty of people and times and places whereby anybody can argue the toss that one cider is better than another, just like one wine is better than another or that one beer is better than another. It depends on who’s drinking it, when they’re drinking it, what the motives of that consumer are and what time it is. I just want this campaign to be – it’s right there in the title – to discover that cider isn’t just this one thing, that it has an amazing myriad of styles and flavours and occasions, and just to showcase that cider is a friendly and engaging community and that everybody’s welcome.

Malt: Going back to what you said about “challenging ciders”, and with a mind to this wonderful shared platform that’s being built, talking to people like Andrew Lea, a problem that cider – particularly craft cider – has always faced, certainly post-Long Ashton, is a lack of access really sophisticated technical knowledge of the sort that there is in wine and beer. Meaning there has always perhaps been a bit more prevalence of faults in cider, and less understanding of how to deal with them, than there is in some other drinks. Is there a hope that the shared platform of Discover Cider will be able to address this through shared knowledge? Or is that an entirely separate issue?
Gabe: I think it’s a bit separate. I think those spaces and places kind of already exist, you know? You’ve got the likes of the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association, the NACM has a technical committee and I did a webinar with Bob Price, Mark Hopper and Lorraine Boddington, who is the new chair of the Pomology and Technical Committees. And they have always said – and they re-iterated once again – that if anybody’s got any sort of technical challenges (though I suppose probably more from a legislation point of view) that there is an openness in terms of sharing that advice.

You’re absolutely right thought that, sadly, cider does lag behind other drinks in terms of there being significant levels of research around particular – all parts I suppose – of apple growing and cidermaking. Relative to that which exists for beer and wine. There are some little bits and some elements happening in other parts of the world; for a lot of cidermakers, even those that are most heralded, and Mr Oliver will be the first to put his hand up here, actually for him cider isn’t really a science-based experience. For him it’s very, very sensorial: look, see, touch, smell, feel, get it in your gut artistic creativity. He’s a wild yeast fermenter who uses a minimum amount of sulphur dioxide and he’s doing things from the opposite end of the spectrum to somebody who’s trying to minimise microflaura, who’s trying to gain control over phenolic characters, who’s trying to gain a specification on all sorts of things.

So for a lot of cidermakers I’m not sure that they’re actually desperate for it, or want it. For them cider is something that is more cultural and much more an expression of who they are, of heritage and of landscape. I’m not necessarily sure that every single cidermaker is ravenous for that high level of scientific research. There are some that are, and there is a lot of opportunity to gain scientific knowledge about cidermaking process. If you were to go on one of Peter Mitchell’s fantastic courses, which any budding commercially-focussed – and anybody who is selling cider, I would say, should go on one of Peter’s courses, hopefully in the not too distant future the Institute of Brewing and Distilling is going to be launching its general certificate in cidermaking. But also for anybody who would be going on any kind of fermentation course, whether it be a winemaking course especially, as a fruit fermentation, to understand “how do yeast work? How do fruit sugars get fermented? How do the acids and tannins – admittedly different in their composition for wine – work?” All of that is available for any cidermaker that is eager to learn more and to put science at the forefront.

So yes, it would be wonderful if there was something like the Long Ashton Research Station still in existence – alas that is not the case. Maybe – thanks to Discover Cider, of course! – we’ll get to the point that there is such a resurgence in cider that it demands to have a whole new research facility. But until that point it’s the case that there is the opportunity for cidermakers to try and sort of research. Platforms like the cider workshop are still a brilliant place for knowledge and exchange and transfer, and that’s probably the best that we’ve got at the moment.

Malt: Is Discover Cider working directly with pubs and retailers? Tell us a little bit about that.
Gabe: Yes, we have sent a call out for any on-trend establishment that wishes to amplify the message of Discover Cider – we are very, very happy for them to do so. There are a number of bars and restaurants etc that have a sort of particular focus on cider that we’ve reached out to again to ask if they can amplify the campaign and if they’re willing to maybe do some events associated with the campaign. But those are more partners of the campaign rather than perhaps the people we’re directing towards. We’re more consumer and media-focussed in that way, but we are reaching out to some of the larger on-trade chains to see whether there’s any interest in partnering up. And the same with retail to – to reach out and just inform them that this campaign is something that is running and that everybody can get involved with, and to see what the appetite is there.

I would say that, because this is a three-month campaign and that although we’ve got a wonderfully slick website and out design from Cider George is fabulously professional, that this is quite a small team and quite a small kind of budget. And so I understand that to say to somebody “hey, get on board”, especially before we had even launched, which was only a week ago, is a bit of an ask. And so I think we’re going to have to have – and rightly so – a few weeks (and this is the luxury of it being a three month campaign) of bedding in and showing what the campaign is all about, and that will really help to bring people on board. Once they can sort of see it and feel it and understand what’s going to happen people will hopefully pick up the mantle and will want to get involved in the campaign and do their own events and activations.

The exact nature of how Discover Cider is going to unfold is, to an extent, a little bit unknown – again because it’s the first time that anything like this has happened. We are going to respond and be nimble on our feet and try lots of different things. And some things will work and some things won’t, some things we think will have great impact and other things will be amazing. And that’s important, to try things and embrace it and we’ll see what kind of messaging works best and what kind of engagement works best and what kind of activity works best and we will adapt.

Malt: How will the initiative progress and maintain momentum over the three months? What are the plans?
Gabe: Well because we’ve got over 30 cidermakers who are on board, and they’re all fantastically supportive – they’ve all given huge amounts of material, of imagery, of videos. You must all check out the fantastic videos that Bill Bradshaw has put together; one video for each of our key themes – they’re available on the website, they’re available via Bill’s youtube channel and they’re all built from material that was already pre-existing. We’ve managed to create a huge amount in a very short space of time, with a very, very tight budget.

And we’ve got huge numbers of food matchings in the offing, of recipes and of stories and tales from cidermakers. We’ve got a huge amount that’s going to come through – there’s going to be new stuff on the website every single week, we’ve got a new competition every single week, we’re working with new partners every single week. And like I say, especially as we start to progress into the latter part of September and into October there’s a hive of activity happening at the cidermakers themselves, and whether in person or via the online platforms we are going to share those occasions with cidermakers. And I very much hope to have some behind-the-scenes and some exclusive access to elements of cidermaking, or access to cidermakers that wouldn’t normally open their doors to the public and things like that.

So we’re going to have unique opportunities to show what cider is all about. And because, as I say, of the number of cidermakers that we’ve got on board, we’ve just got huge amounts of material. So there’s going to be new stuff happening all the way through the next 12 weeks.

Malt: How can cideries outside the original group get involved?
Gabe: Everybody, as long as you are a commercial cidermaker – you are selling your product, which means you would need to be fully legit and signed up to HMRC even if you do have your exemption notice, we do ask that you are a full time cidermaker. But whether you’re making 2000 litres or whether you’re making 200 million litres, everybody is welcome to join. You can drop me an email – discovercider@gmail.com – or have a look at the website, all the details are on there. Or you can get in touch via any of the social media channels – we’re looking at everything. We want as many people to get involved in this as possible; the more voices, the more diversity, the more range and opportunity that we can showcase to trade, media and consumer the more power that this campaign is going to have.

Malt: When the three months are up, what do you think needs to happen to keep people interested, to keep banging the drum, to keep cider relevant and in the public eye?
Gabe: That is a very good question! Part of it I can’t really answer, because we don’t know exactly what Discover Cider is going to achieve and how big its reach is going to be and what kind of impact it’s going to have. This is earmarked to be a three month campaign – if it has great success and there is an appetite amongst the cidermakers for there to be more, maybe there will be something that follows on. Maybe because of the challenging economic climate, the opportunity for cidermakers to fund something external – it might not be there. So there’s an uncertainty of course as to exactly what the reach and what the impact of the campaign is going to be. What will come out is, hopefully, a demonstration of cider working closely together, so maybe in a more ad hoc context cidermakers might club together more regionally through their cidermaking and regional cidermaking associations. Or if they don’t have a cidermaking association maybe they will form one – the East Midlands Cider Society, the Kent Cider Society, the Scottish Cider Association maybe, we’ll have to wait and see. I just hope that it does form a little bit of a catalyst and some form of inspiration. It might be the case that, even if the campaign isn’t still up and running, that the hashtag of #DiscoverCider, which I implore every cidermaker and every cider drinker to be using to get that message out there, that will still continue to exist. We’re at the very beginning of the campaign so it’s a little harder to say. You’ll have to ask me that question once we reach the latter part of November to see where we’ve got to and what needs to be done in order for cider to continue to maintain that strong, cohesive, relevant message.

Thanks so much to Gabe again for talking us through all things Discover Cider and providing the images for this article. Do visit their website and check out the events page. I’ll certainly be following the campaign with interest and I wish everyone involved the very best of luck with it.

CategoriesCider Spirits
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

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